The Myth of Lycurgus

by GreekCellar
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The story of Lycurgus is set in the Iliad, as an example of the punishments in store for all those scornful of the Gods. According to Homer’s epic, Lycurgus, King of Thracians, detects young Dionysus with his nurturers (Trophoi) and hunts them down; Dionysus dives fearfully undersea where he is salvaged by the nymph Thetis. Homer details how the gods take up on persecuting Lycurgus as a result; Eventually Zeus strikes him blind.

 

Aeschylus however recounts a different version of the myth as he portrays Dionysus a middle-aged man, crossing Thrace on his way to invade India and punishing Lycurgus himself. The tragic poet gives more information about the disrespectful King referring to him as the leader of the Edonians of Thrace and the son of Dryas, “the oak”.

 

Lycurgus denies Dionysus passage and his army capture the Bacchae and the Satyrs of his cohort while the god himself takes refuge at the last minute in Thetis, daughter of Nereus. The Bacchae miraculously are freed from their bonds while Lycurgus loses his sanity, by virtue of another miracle.

 

Lycurgus in his madness grabs an axe and kills his son Dryas mistaking him for a grapevine, only to recover his mind right afterwards. His act of cutting the grapevine –even if in reality it was his son- puts a curse on the Thracian land rendering it barren. The subjects of the kingdom seek for a solution in the oracle the reply of which is that for Thrace to become fertile again, Lycurgus should be cut into four pieces. His subjects, being left with no other choice, lead their king to Mount Pangaeus and after tying him to four horses they shred him to death.

 

Roman Hyginus however gives a completely different account of the tale stating that Lycurgus disputes the divine nature of Dionysus and expels him off of his kingdom.  Next he drinks wine, gets drunk and tries to rape his mother. Realizing the magnitude of his act and conveniently assuming wine drove him to do that, Lycurgus sets out to uproot the grapevines.

 

Dionysus however protects the grapevine and deprives Lycurgus of his sanity who proceeds on killing both his wife and his son. He thereafter pushes him out to Mount Rhodope, home to panthers, where he tragically dies. A variation of the myth recounted by Diodorus (Siculus) has Lycurgus reigning in the part of Thrace neighboring to Hellespont where he makes an agreement with Dionysus which allows the latter to return back to Europe from Asia.

 

However, just as the Bacchae set foot on Thrace, Lycurgus orders his army to kill both them and Dionysus. But Charops reveals Lycurgus’ plan to the god, who guarding against him keeps his army on the Asian side and when Lycurgus kills the Bacchae retaliates by crushing the Thracian army. Lycurgus is held captive and finds himself blinded and tortured by Dionysus before he crucifies him.

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